Talking About Equity as an Avoidance

My department has begun a process which will (hopefully) lead to meaningful and sustained improvements in our equity picture.  Current, and historical, data makes it clear that our program is not serving all groups adequately.  Black students (aka “african american”) almost always have a pass rate significantly lower than other groups, after accounting for their level of preparation.

I am very pleased with my colleagues and their willingness to spend time working on a problem which involves some discomfort … it’s not always easy to talk about race and equity.  Much of our initial discussion focused on our point of view and problems that make sense to us … phrases like “student skills”, “role models”, and “tutoring” we very common.  “Compassion” and “empathy” were also used.  These are all good thoughts, but tend to focus on the surface and symptoms.

However, I am sure that our conversation will need to progress to deeper levels of understanding.  One reason to believe this is that this conversation has occurred hundreds of times in other institutions and organizations without producing an accepted basket of ‘best practices’ for eliminating the inequity as we generally would like.

One perspective that might help our profession actually make progress on this comes from Danny Martin (University of Illinois at Chicago).  Dr. Martin delivered a talk entitled “The Collective Black and Principles to Actions” (available at .  The ‘Principles to Actions” part of the title refers to the 2014 publication by NCTM of that name.  The “collective black” in the title refers to a way to understand a social structure in the United States.

A quote from near the end of that article is:

Does this document represent, symbolically and in spirit, the kind of disruptive violence to the
status quo that can move the last to first?  Can it truly help in improving the collective conditions
— not isolated examples of success — of African American, Latin@, Indigenous, and poor
students? By success, I do not mean slow growth and incremental gains.

The “disruptive violence” in this quote might bother some readers.  Remember that Dr. Martin is speaking of social institutions, not a personal philosophy of political change.

I think Dr. Martin’s point, perhaps shared by Dr. Martin Luther King as well, is that incremental change and “stuff around the edges” will not produce meaningful changes at the level necessary.  Our  problems are too well established in the existing structures, and even in the vocabulary we use to describe ‘the problem’.  For example, millions of white people have had “compassion” and “empathy” for a wide variety of students (including the group ‘black students’ my department is focused on).

Here is a point … Perhaps “white people” only support working on “equity” when this work does not involve any change in the white power relationships and social structure.  Are we willing to share power and authority to reach the lofty goals we seek?

Perhaps we will find that reaching equity in our department depends upon fundamental changes in the  local community.  The urban schools have old buildings, few resources, and other significant challenges; this district is heavily ‘minority’ (black students in particular) … because our state allows “school of choice’, where THOSE WITH RESOURCES can take their students to a ‘better’ school in the suburbs.   Can ‘separate and sort of equal’ ever allow us to achieve equity in higher education?  [The local condition amounts to sanctioned segregation of schools, especially at the high school level.]

We are likely to encounter large-size problems in our work to eliminate inequity in our courses.  We have only begun the conversation, and I’m proud that my colleagues are willing to begin this journey.  Our success will likely involve changes that would have been difficult to imagine prior to beginning the process.  So … I appreciate your “moral support”.

Is your department ready to face the challenges of doing effective work to reduce inequity?

Join Dev Math Revival on Facebook:


  • By schremmer, February 11, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    If you think that “Black students (aka “african american”) almost always have a pass rate significantly lower than other groups, after accounting for their level of preparation.” is the problem, just pass everybody. (My emphasis.)

    The real issue is the percentages of students entering a developmental program who pass a real course, say, Differential Calculus. (Aka the mathematics of change.) I don’t know of any numbers according to “groups” but these are the only numbers that ought to matter.

  • By Jack Rotman, February 13, 2017 @ 7:47 am

    Although we might wish that ‘college mathematics’ for a program would always mean “calculus”, that is not the issue that our students experience. Our historical response to the problem of unequal outcomes is to create tracks for students; recently, these tracks are called ‘pathways’ at the developmental level or ‘co-requisites’ at the college level, where certain groups are always more likely to be in those sections. It is this tracking that students experience.

  • By schremmer, February 11, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

    Ok, to be “constructive”, here is a suggestion. Work on reconstruction the mathematical contents to turn them into something that both makes sense and can be built upon. For instance, instead of “joining plot points smoothly” which makes no sense whatsoever and leads strictly nowhere, use local Laurent polynomial approximations which are a reasonable extension of decimal approximations and which will provide a definition of derivatives in which limits are safely buried into little o‘s but can be dug out if and when this becomes necessary. (Certainly not in the calculus sequence.)

  • By schremmer, February 16, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    @Rotman I did write “a real course, say, Differential Calculus” (Emphasis added). In other words, if the students go into “xxx”, then compare their success at the end of “xxx”.

    Whether to direct students into differential Calculus rather in “xxx” is indeed a different matter, but one which, actually, would deserve to be analysed.

Other Links to this Post

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes